Remember that old college chant, "Beer before liquor, never been sicker. Liquor before beer; you’re in the clear"? I propose we change that to: "Markups on liquor, never been sicker. Bring your own beer; you’re in the clear."
Seriously, San Francisco is a city that likes its liquor with a side of food, and no one knows that more than restaurant owners from the outright avaricious to those just trying to stay above their astronomical overhead in this real estate-deprived city. Haven’t you been to a dinner where the bar tab doubles that of the food? And did you know that a martini usually costs the restaurant a tenth of what it charges you?
We’ve rarely been a city to sit by and tolerate injustice. But in this case, there’s no need to go on a hunger strike about it: in fact, quite the opposite. Join the BYOB movement with a sit-in demonstration at any of these restaurants. (Interestingly, many are in the Tenderloin, which makes sense considering that the entire TL is pretty much a BYOB zone.) Refuse to pay ridiculous drink prices and sip the sweet nectar of freedom from bar tabs. It tastes kind of like Charles Shaw.
And remember: bring cash along with your booze. These places don’t have liquor licenses or credit card machines. But you can swing most of these places at around $10 per person, so I trust you’ll work it out.
Shalimar is the Starbucks of the city’s BYOB Indian places, boasting two locations within eight blocks of each other. I prefer the one on Jones Street. The ambiance is group-therapy-room-at-a-public-clinic: wood laminate tables, green and white linoleum checked floor, institutional yellowed-cream walls. The service is fast, though never brusque. The food? Transcendent. The chicken tikka masala consists of plump balls of good-quality white meat chicken swimming in a delightful pool of clarified butter and masala. The garlic naan is heaven doughy, buttery, and flavorful. Also delectable is the palak paneer spinach and cheese sweetly spiced with cinnamon, cumin, cloves, and bay leaf. After dinner, cross the street to speakeasy-themed Bourbon and Branch for the ultimate lowbrow/highbrow evening.
Pairing: Try a sparkling wine like Italian Prosecco or Spanish cava with the dense multilayered spice of Shalimar’s cuisine. Or bring along any of these Indian beers: Flying Horse Royal Lager Beer, Kingfisher, Himalayan Blue Lager, or Maharaja Lager.
532 Jones, SF. (415) 928-0333;
1409 Polk, SF. (415) 776-4642, www.shalimarsf.com
The orange walls of Tajine denote a more cheerful atmosphere than Shalimar, but this Nob Hill gem is tiny … er, cozy. I meant to say cozy. If you do BYOB here, make sure you keep it mellow no flailing, weaving, or expansive hand gestures in this tight space. As for dinner, start with the chicken bastilla to share phyllo dough stuffed with chicken and almonds and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. For less than $10, the lamb or kufta kebab dinners come with zalook (eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, and parsley sautéed in olive oil), shalada (tomatoes, green onions, and parsley dressed in olive oil and lemon juice), and Moroccan bread. Or try the eponymous tajines the name for both a Moroccan clay slow cooker and the stews made inside it which have the same melt-in-your-mouth meat- and vegetable-infused flavor as your standard Crock-Pot dish. The chicken is cooked with lemon and olive; the lamb stewed with prunes and almonds. Tajine warns that if you BYOB, you must also buy a beverage from them.
Pairing: Morocco’s native beer, Casablanca, is hard to find in the States, so opt for a full-bodied, fruity New World pinot noir instead.
1338 Polk, SF. (415) 440-1718, www.tajinerestaurant.com
I’ll give Pakwan, the ridiculously inexpensive Indian and Pakistani favorite in the Mission, this over Shalimar: it has seating right outside. Which, on a sunny Mission day with a six-pack of beer from the liquor store across the street, has a certain allure. And … sigh … I must give Pakwan its due for having tandoori fish on the menu. (But Shalimar has brains! Brains masala!) Pakwan also does justice to Indian standards like saab gosht (lamb curry), bhengan bartha (eggplant), and aloo palak (spinach and potatoes). And its garlic naan gives Shalimar’s a run for its money. But, I keep reminding myself, it’s not a competition if both are supporting the common cause cheap food and cheaper liquor.
Pairing: The recommendations for Shalimar will work here, but if you’re going with the tandoori fish, try the citrusy notes of a muscadet.
3180 16th St., SF. (415)215-2440, www.pakwanrestaurant.com
Two reasons to take the bus to this Inner Richmond favorite: parking is notoriously sparse and, two bottles of wine in, you probably shouldn’t be driving anyway. Tawan’s Thai is named after the owners’ son, whose childhood drawings decorate its walls. On the front of the menu, Tawan (meaning little sun) warns that his mom’s food is "the best, just be sure not to order it too hot unless you can handle it" and he’s right. Consider yourself warned. Start with the thung thong appetizer chicken, potatoes, and spices fried in rice paper. Then share the tom yung gung soup, a spicy, sour chicken soup flavored with lemongrass and lime. The gaeng khiaw-warn chicken, beef, or pork simmered in green curry and coconut milk with bamboo shoots, bell pepper, and basil also is divine. And for you insane people who don’t like spicy food, you can never go wrong with pad thai.
Pairing: An Alsatian wine, like a Gewürztraminer or Riesling, goes nicely with Thai food. A reliable alternative is a Thai beer like Singha, Phuket Lager, or Chang Lager.
4403 Geary, SF. (415)751-5175
CORDON BLEU VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT
Don’t come to Cordon Bleu expecting its namesake cuisine. Don’t come expecting French food at all. Instead, expect to gorge on this Vietnamese BBQ joint’s highly touted five-spice chicken. Seven bucks will get you half a chicken (not half a breast or leg, half a bird) rubbed with spice and grilled until its blackened, spicy, crisp skin seals in the juicy, tender meat. That comes with "salad," a deep-fried imperial roll, and another delicious enigma a meat sauce (ingredients unknown, but who cares when it’s this freaking good?) poured over rice. Suggestions: ask for extra meat sauce and lock your valuables in your trunk.
Pairing: Cordon Bleu’s meat-centric delectability needs beer; wine is just not going to cut through the greasy vittles. Try a regional beer such as Singha, Red Horse Dark or San Miguel Dark from the Philippines, or Singapore’s Tiger Gold Medal Lager.
1574 California, SF. (415)673-5167. Not wheelchair accessible.
DE AFGHANAN KEBAB HOUSE
The number one reason I could never be a vegetarian: kebabs, those seasoned, juicy, sizzling, glistening, dripping, perfect little skewered morsels of meat rotating hypnotically in restaurant windows, expelling wafts of their spicy, meaty aroma. (Try to wax that poetic about soysages.) If you too hold the kebab in high esteem, count on De Afghanan Kebab House to do it justice. There also are veggie options, like the borani badenjan (eggplant sautéed with tomato, garlic, peppers, and topped with yogurt) or the borani kadoo (pumpkin sautéed with garlic, peppers, and also topped with yogurt). And De Afghanan Kebab has mantu, those steamed dumplings stuffed with beef and onions topped with (you guessed it) yogurt and a spicy tomato sauce. Yum.
Pairing: The Middle Eastern flavor of De Afghanan Kebab House would do well with the crisp fruitiness of a Sauvignon Blanc or the spiciness of a Zinfandel. An offbeat, oft-ignored, and underrated choice might also be a rosé; its brightness pairs well with yogurt-heavy items and grilled meats.
1303 Polk, SF. (415) 345-9947;
1160 University, Berk. (510) 549-3781;
37405 Fremont, Fremont. (510) 745-9599, www.deafghanan.net
HAN IL KWAN
All I’ve heard about Korean food in the Richmond is, "You have to go to Brothers!" Well, here’s why Outer Richmond’s Han Il Kwan might make you want to break free of the siblings’ sovereignty: food so authentic that San Francisco’s Korean Tour Buses make a daily stop here; better ventilation, so you don’t need a dry cleaner to get the funk of smoke and bulgogi out of your jacket; much easier parking than in the Inner Richmond; no wait for a table; and, for the win, you can bring your beverage of choice. It’ll be hard to choose between the wonderful kalbi marinated short ribs cooked at the table and served with rice, tofu soup, and banchan and the equally killer bulgogi tender BBQ beef cooked like the kalbi.
Pairing: Korean food and wine just don’t mix. Maybe it’s the acidity of the kimchi competing with the acidity of the wine; maybe it’s just that the cold bite of a beer is the only thing that’ll make your mouth stop burning. Either way, try the Korean beer, OB Lager, or another East Asian brew like China’s Tsingtao, Harbin Lager, or Macau Beer.
1802 Balboa, SF. (415) 752-4447 *